This story about Koné Bakary and “Night of the Kings” first appeared in the International Films Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Philippe Lacôte’s prison drama “Night of the Kings,” the Ivory Coast’s entry in this year’s Oscar race for Best International Feature Film, stars a lot of actors who are known in international cinema circles. Among them are Steve Tientcheu from the Oscar-nominated French film “Les Misérables” as the inmate boss of a brutal concrete prison, and “Holy Motors” star Denis Lavant in a feral and deranged performance as the sole white convict.
But in many ways, the central role in the stylish and harrowing drama is the “Roman,” a young prisoner who is chosen on the night of a blood moon to tell a story until the dawn. And for the role of the Roman — that’s a title, not a name — Lacôte chose Koné Bakary, a 22-year-old linguistics student who had never acted before.
In a movie that is at its heart about the power of storytelling, Bakary is the storyteller, spinning the tale of real-life gang leader Zama King as the film follows his words into the realm of fantasy and then back to gritty reality. The film is set in the Ivory Coast city of Abidjan’s formidable La MACA prison, where the inmates really do select a Roman and require him to tell a story all night long — but not, as the film suggests, under the pain of death.
Wary and timid at first, the Roman grows into his role as the night goes on, and Bakary does, too; by the end, he is a man who can hold chaos at bay with the power of his words.
It’s hardly the kind of thing that Bakary thought he’d be doing when he enrolled at the Houphouët-Boigny University of Abidjan. He had seen a television series called “Invisibles” that made use of young actors and said the series “made me dream,” but he was too focused on his studies to follow that dream until he was approached on the street and asked if he’d be interested in auditioning for “Night of the Kings.”
“I thought, ‘Why not me?'” he said. At the casting session with Lacôte, he recited a poem. “The director said thank you, and that I would be contacted again. That meant that I was not chosen.”
He left, figuring that his flirtation with acting was over — but two minutes later, he said, the casting director chased him down and offered him a spot in a two-month workshop that would include other aspiring actors selected from across Abidjan. At that point, no roles had been assigned and there was no way to know who’d end up playing each part.
“I was competing with several other actors who were very good for this role of Roman,” he said. “So I memorized the words of all the characters by heart. I said to myself, ‘That (way) I will be able to get by for each role.'”
At the end of the workshop, Lacôte gave the role of Roman to Bakary, who said he “plunged into the script to grasp the story and understand the stakes around the characters.” He also got plenty of instruction from his director. “Philippe had a precise idea of the character: his way of walking, of behaving in the prison. He insisted a lot on what he called ‘the music of words.'”
Exteriors were shot at the real La MACA prison, but the bulk of the action — shot with extras who were former inmates — took place in a set that was built to reproduce the world behind bars. “I was happy that all the interiors of our prison were shot in a built setting,” he said. “But even in this setting, there was a feeling of suffocation.”
And now that he’s made his acting debut, he’s anxious to do it again. “I would like to make a lot of other films, but here in Côte d’Ivoire, the industry is emerging and it is very difficult to make a living as an actor,” said Bakary, who lives with his uncle, a merchant, in the working-class Williamsville neighborhood of Abidjan.
“But I’m a very optimistic person, so I hope to make a long career as an actor.”